As Paul Rahe famously expounds in his 1997 essay “Don Corleone, Friendship, and the American Regime,” the opening scene of The Godfather establishes a distinction between two worlds, two cultures that can exist side-by-side but ultimately force each person to choose one, and then live with the consequences.
In that scene the Don sits at his desk listening to an undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, ask for vengeance for crimes committed against his daughter. The daughter Bonasera “raised in the American fashion,” had been raped. The undertaker explains, “I went to the police like a good American. The two boys were arrested. They were brought to trial. The evidence was overwhelming and they pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison and suspended the sentence. They went free that very day. I stood in the courtroom like a fool and those bastards smiled at me. And then I said to my wife, ‘We must go to Don Corleone for justice’.”
There is a society of law, aspiring to be impartial and unemotional. It may be impersonal, and it may even be flawed. But it does its best to apply equally to the great and the small, to the masses and the minorities. Its alternate is the more tribal society offered by Don Corleone. It promises justice but is available only to a select in-crowd. The weakness of this system is its lack of universality and tendency to become rule by might.
America from its inception has strived to be a society of law. John Adams wrote of “a government of laws, and not of men,” and Thomas Jefferson asked for “equal and exact justice to all men.” Yet the opening scene of the Godfather witnesses a man whose name translates to “Good night, America,” opt for a tribal solution to his problem. With a drop of his genius Mario Puzo hints at an essential truth. Namely, if Americans like the undertaker reject the rule of law – however imperfect – for the divisions and tribalism of the Old World, the very idea of America is lost.
Now on the threshold of 2012, the United States seems a little less united. An “us and them” mentality seems pervasive in domestic politics. Our federal government has taken upon itself to choose winners and losers on an increasing scale. The jolt of this evolution spurred the now famous rant of CNBC commentator Rick Santelli from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade that sparked the Tea Party movement. In response the neo-Progressives accelerated the rhetoric of class divisions culminating in the Occupy Wall Street protests.
J.R. Dunn focuses on the rise of crony capitalism that is part of the surging tribalism. “Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.” He goes on to illuminate significant works that expand the evidence.
If it seems like political tribalism has developed from the festering sore of American civics to a full blown contagion since the election of Barack Obama it will be little comfort to learn that our President from Chicago cites The Godfather as his favorite movie. Ominously, Obama’s original Chief of Staff and current Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel is nicknamed “the Godfather.”
While it may be an overreach to tie the execution of office by the President to his favorite movie such a reading was not always thought so frivolous.
George Washington has been closely identified with his favorite play, “Cato, a Tragedy” by Joseph Addison. Cato follows the last days of Cato the Younger, a man of unimpeachable morals. The stoic Cato is incorruptible, committed to liberty, and nobly stubborn in adherence to his principles. Washington saw the play many times, including at a performance he organized for the men at Valley Forge. The words of Addison’s Cato can be found in numerous writing of Washington. So much moved by Addison’s Cato, our first President modeled his own behavior on the stoic, and even used the final act in his speech to dissuade the threatened rebellion of Continental Army officers at Newburgh in 1783.
If you are to understand the administration of President Washington, you must understand the influence and lessons of Addison’s Cato. Students of Abraham Lincoln similarly must acknowledge the Presidents favorite play, one he read over and over again, Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of MacBeth.” In the blood-soaked MacBeth the natural order of things is overturned, and appearances are little indication of reality. In MacBeth, vile intentions precede vile actions requiring an act of great will aided by Providence to be undone. It is a sobering tale for the tormented President of a divided nation.
As Don Corleone was succeeded by Michael the familial bonds of the old tribalism fall away to raw power exerted for the masters end, the means be damned. As Michael said, “it is not personal Sonny, it’s strictly business.” Whether or not they may or may not find themselves on the side of the current godfather, each American must affirmatively choose rule of law over its alternative. To divide the home front into “us versus them” is to choose the end of our exceptional nation.